Right and left stake out Cheonan battle lines

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Right and left stake out Cheonan battle lines

The nation’s conservatives and liberals are set to collide in reacting to the government’s announcement later this week of what sunk the Navy warship Cheonan in March.

Following the tragic incident that killed 46 sailors in the waters near the inter-Korean border, an international team of civilian and military experts will announce the conclusion of its probe Thursday. A North Korean torpedo attack is suspected as the cause of the sinking, sources informed about the probe have told local media.

Four leaders of the liberal opposition parties and heads of civic groups yesterday held a joint press conference at the National Assembly attacking the Lee Myung-bak administration for trying to politicize the tragedy ahead of June 2 local elections.

The Democratic, Democratic Labor, Creative Korea and People’s Participation parties joined the conference along with the leaders of 13 religious and civic groups.

In a joint statement, they challenged the probe’s veracity and criticized the government for keeping key evidence secret, including survivors’ testimonies and military communication logs from the time of the sinking. “No matter what the probe’s outcome is,” the liberals said, “the public will have to doubt its validity.”

“A hasty conclusion without clear evidence and international recognition will only bring about distrust and criticism at home and abroad,” they continued, demanding raw evidence from the probe be disclosed with its conclusions.

Democratic Party Chairman Chung Sye-kyun said, “I am not convinced that there’s a need for the investigation to announce its conclusion and the president to have a special press conference ahead of the local elections. I will not allow the Cheonan’s sinking to be politicized.”

The liberals apparently worry that a sense of a national security crisis would unite conservative votes and work in favor of the ruling Grand National Party in the elections.

In a separate meeting at the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters, Representative Kim Hyo-seuk said the largest opposition party will not accept the probe outcome and called for a new investigation led by the legislature.

At the joint press conference, liberal activists and politicians also criticized the military and the government’s handling of the incident. “No one assumed responsibility, no one apologized and no one gave a clear explanation about what happened,” they said in their statement, demanding an apology from President Lee and the dismissal of top military officials.

They also urged the government to overhaul its national security system and end its “confrontational North Korea policy.”

As liberals condemned the government and military, a group of elder statesmen condemned the liberals for promoting social chaos before the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking was disclosed.

The group of the nation’s senior political figures, led by retired Gen. Paik Sun-yup and Korean Veterans Association Chairman Lee Sang-hoon, and including former National Assembly speakers, prime ministers, university presidents and retired generals, issued a joint statement yesterday criticizing some liberal civic groups and politicians for having jumped to conclusions about the Cheonan’s sinking.

“Civic groups and political forces with foul motives spread rumors that the Cheonan sank in an accidental bombing by U.S. forces during a Korea-U.S. joint military drill,” their statement said. “The government must sternly punish those who stirred up society.”

They also criticized the military’s slow response in the crisis, urging swift military reform.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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